Puppy Socialization: Handling Exercises

Train a Puppy to Calmly Accept Petting and Other Handling

Father and kids with beagle
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Teaching a puppy to calmly accept handling is a big part of puppy training. Imagine all the ways your puppy may be handled in his life. A child may hug him. A groomer may trim his nails. A veterinarian may restrain him to examine him. How he reacts to all these types of handling may depend on how he is handled in the early weeks of his life.

Critical Period

Puppies go through a critical period of development which ends around the age of 16 weeks.

It is believed that they will be more accepting of things they encounter later in life if they are exposed to them during this critical period. For instance, a dog who has never had his feet handled as a puppy is more likely to growl, snap, or bite when a groomer tries to trim his nails later on.

This doesn't mean that every dog who isn't used to having his feet handled is going to become aggressive when he goes to the groomer. It just increases a dog's chances of being comfortable with handling.

Keep Handling Positive

When you first start doing handling exercises with your puppy, start off gently. Try to pair handling with things the puppy likes, such as praise, treats, and games. With this type of positive reinforcement, your puppy will soon associate things such as being hugged and having his ears examined with things he enjoys.

Who Should Handle the Puppy

To get your puppy comfortable with being handled, you should start by doing the handling exercises yourself.

Your puppy is familiar with you and most likely to accept being pet, poked, and prodded by you. Once your puppy is comfortable with you handling all parts of his body, you can ask other people to help with handling exercises. If the puppy is kept happy and comfortable during handling exercises, he'll quickly learn to accept or even enjoy being pet, hugged, and examined by anyone who comes along.

How Often Should Handling Exercises Be Done

Handling exercises should be done a few times a day for several minutes each time. You may also want to join a puppy training class. These types of training classes, often referred to as puppy kindergarten, usually focus on puppy socialization. Doing a puppy class once a week gives you the opportunity to introduce your puppy to being handled by other people under the supervision of an experienced dog trainer.

Ideas for Handling Exercises

Not sure where to start with handling exercises? The following ideas can help make sure you cover all the bases:

  • Stroke and pet the puppy from his head all the way down his back.
  • Gently hold each of the puppy's paws.
  • Unfold ears, and look inside.
  • Rub the puppy's belly.
  • Gently tug the puppy's tail.
  • Lift the puppy's muzzle to check his teeth.
  • Gently hug the puppy.
  • Gently restrain the pup, hugging him and holding him still.

Troubleshooting

The point of puppy handling exercises is to make the puppy comfortable with accepting petting and other types of handling. The following tips can help resolve any problems you have when practicing the puppy training exercises:

  • If at any point your puppy seems fearful or uncomfortable, you should take a step back. Give your puppy some space and continue handling exercises later, preferably once he's approached you on his own.
  • Don't force the puppy beyond his comfort zone with strangers. Allow him to approach new people in his own time.
  • Always handle puppies gently. If the puppy is hurt during handling exercises, he may always associate being pet or touched in certain places with the pain.
  • If you do accidentally hurt the puppy (for example, if you step on his toe while you're petting him), don't make a big deal of it. Instead, continue to gently pet him, and give him lots of praise in a happy tone of voice. Coddling him will simply reinforce his fear.

Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT